Thursday, August 25, 2016

Misconceptions in Modern History


  • Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. He was actually slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time. After his death in 1821, the French emperor's height was recorded as 5 feet 2 inches in French feet, which in English measurements is 5 feet 7 inches (1.69 m). Some believe that he was nicknamed le Petit Caporal (The Little Corporal) as a term of affection. Napoleon was often accompanied by his imperial guard, who were selected for their height—this could have contributed to a perception that he was relatively short.
  • Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day, but the celebration of the Mexican Army's victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Mexico's Declaration of Independence from Spain in 1810 is celebrated on September 16.
  • The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was not caused by Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicking over a lantern. A newspaper reporter invented the story to make colorful copy.
  • The claim that Frederick Remington, on assignment to Cuba, telegraphed William Randolph Hearst that "...There will be no war. I wish to return" and that Hearst responded, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war" is unsubstantiated. Although this claim is included in a book by James Creelman, there is no evidence that the telegraph exchange ever happened, and substantial evidence that it did not.
  • Immigrants' last names were not Americanized (voluntarily, mistakenly, or otherwise) at Ellis Island. Officials there kept no records other than checking ship manifests created at the point of origin, and there was simply no paperwork which would have created such an effect, let alone any law. At the time in New York, anyone could change the spelling of their name simply by using that new spelling.
  • The common image of Santa Claus as a good old man in red robes was not created by The Coca-Cola Company as an advertising gimmick. Despite being historically represented with different characteristics in different colours of robes, Santa Claus had already taken his modern form in popular culture and seen extensive use in other companies' advertisements and other mass media at the time Coca-Cola began using his image in the 1930s.
  • Italian dictator Benito Mussolini did not "make the trains run on time". Much of the repair work had been performed before Mussolini and the Fascists came to power in 1922. Accounts from the era also suggest that the Italian railways' legendary adherence to timetables was more propaganda than reality.
  • There was no widespread outbreak of panic across the United States in response to Orson Welles' 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Only a very small share of the radio audience was even listening to it, and isolated reports of scattered incidents and increased call volume to emergency services were played up the next day by newspapers, eager to discredit radio as a competitor for advertising. Both Welles and CBS, which had initially reacted apologetically, later came to realize that the myth benefited them and actively embraced it in their later years.
  • There is no evidence of Polish cavalry mounting a brave but futile charge against German tanks using lances and sabres during the German invasion of Poland in 1939. This story may have originated from German propaganda efforts following the charge at Krojanty, in which a Polish cavalry brigade surprised German infantry in the open, and successfully charged and dispersed them, until driven off by armoured cars. While Polish cavalry still carried the sabre for such opportunities, they were trained to fight as highly mobile, dismounted cavalry (dragoons) and issued with light anti-tank weapons.
  • During the occupation of Denmark by the Nazis during World War II, King Christian X of Denmark did not thwart Nazi attempts to identify Jews by wearing a yellow star himself. Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear the Star of David. The Danish resistance did help most Jews flee the country before the end of the war.
  • Albert Einstein did not fail mathematics at school. Albert Einstein did not fail mathematics classes (never "flunked a math exam") in school. Upon seeing a column making this claim, Einstein said "I never failed in mathematics... Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus." Einstein did however fail his first entrance exam into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (ETH) in 1895, when he was two years younger than his fellow students but scored exceedingly well in the mathematics and science sections, then passed on his second attempt.
  • Actor Ronald Reagan was never seriously considered for the role of Rick Blaine in the 1942 film classic Casablanca, eventually played by Humphrey Bogart. This belief came from an early studio press release announcing the film's production that used his name to generate interest in the film. But by the time it had come out, Warner Bros. knew that Reagan was unavailable for any roles in the foreseeable future since he was no longer able to defer his entry into military service. Studio records show that producer Hal B. Wallis had always wanted Bogart for the part.
  • U.S. Senator George Smathers never gave a speech to a rural audience describing his opponent, Claude Pepper, as an "extrovert" whose sister was a "thespian", in the apparent hope they would confuse them with similar-sounding words like "pervert" and "lesbian". Time, which is sometimes cited as the source, described the story of the purported speech as a "yarn" at the time, and no Florida newspaper reported such a speech during the campaign. The leading reporter who covered Smathers said he always gave the same boilerplate speech. Smathers had offered US$10,000 to anyone who could prove he had made the speech; it was never claimed.
  • John F. Kennedy's words "Ich bin ein Berliner" are standard German for "I am a Berliner." An urban legend has it that due to his use of the indefinite article ein, Berliner is translated as jelly doughnut, and that the population of Berlin was amused by the supposed mistake. The word Berliner is not commonly used in Berlin to refer to the Berliner Pfannkuchen; they are usually called ein Pfannkuchen.
  • African American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois did not renounce his U.S. citizenship while living in Ghana shortly before his death, as is often claimed. In early 1963, due to his membership in the Communist Party and support for the Soviet Union, the U.S. State Department did not renew his passport while he was already in Ghana overseeing the creation of the Encyclopedia Africana. After leaving the embassy, he stated his intention to renounce his citizenship in protest. But while he took Ghanaian citizenship, he never went through the process of renouncing his American citizenship, and may not even have intended to.
  • When bartender Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her Queens apartment in 1964, 37 neighbors did not stand idly by and watch, not calling the police until after she was dead, as The New York Times initially reported to widespread public outrage that persisted for years. Later reporting established that the police report the Times had initially relied on was inaccurate, that Genovese had been attacked twice in different locations, and while the many witnesses heard the attack they only heard brief portions and did not realize what was occurring, with only six or seven actually reporting seeing anything. Some called police; one who did not said "I didn't want to get involved", an attitude which later came to be attributed to all the residents who saw or heard part of the attack.
  • The Rolling Stones were not performing "Sympathy for the Devil" at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert when Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a member of the local Hells Angels chapter that was serving as security. While the incident that culminated in Hunter's death began while the band was performing the song, prompting a brief interruption before the Stones finished it, it concluded several songs later as the band was performing "Under My Thumb". The misconception arose from mistaken reporting in Rolling Stone.
  • While it was praised by one architectural magazine prior to its construction as "the best high apartment of the year", the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, considered to epitomize the failures of urban renewal in American cities after it was demolished in the early 1970s, never won any awards for its design. The architectural firm that designed the buildings did win an award for an earlier St. Louis project, which may have been confused with Pruitt–Igoe.
  • Although popularly known as the "red telephone", the Moscow–Washington hotline was never a telephone line, nor were red phones used. The first implementation of the hotline used teletype equipment, which was replaced by facsimile (fax) machines in 1988. Since 2008, the hotline has been a secure computer link over which the two countries exchange emails. Moreover, the hotline links the Kremlin to the Pentagon, not the White House.
  • Despite common misconception, Benjamin Franklin did not actually propose Daylight saving time. In fact, the 18th-century Europe did not even keep precise schedules.

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